Why is the battle of Bannockburn remembered as Scotland’s greatest victory?
The image of plucky warriors led by Robert the Bruce sending a cocksure English army into flight has secured the battle of Bannockburn’s status in the annals of Scottish history. Helen Carr chronicles the 1314 clash and how it transformed the balance of power between not only two, but three warring nations
In June 1314 a great army rumbled forwards, parallel to the river Forth, following the old Roman road that led north across the war-ravaged Anglo-Scottish border. The king of England, Edward II, rode at the head of an army of around 18,000 infantry and 2,000 heavy cavalry horses. A baggage train allegedly 20 miles long groaned under the weight of arms, plate, food and wine and the administrative paraphernalia associated with the management of the crown, including England’s Great Seal.
The army was marching to relieve Stirling Castle, an English-held bastion 40 miles north-west of Edinburgh that was under siege by Edward Bruce, brother of the self-proclaimed king of the Scots, Robert the Bruce. Edward II was a king in a hurry. Should the Scots capture Stirling, he would lose access to the north of Scotland and with it, his grip on the land his father, Edward I, the self-styled ‘Hammer of the Scots’, had conquered at the outbreak of war in 1296.
And so he had mustered an army in Berwick on-Tweed, the English administrative centre in the north, and marched in haste. The knight Sir Thomas Gray rode towards Stirling that day and 40 years later his son (also Sir Thomas Gray) would record his father’s account of the battle in his book Scalacronica. As the English marched north, Robert the Bruce prepared for combat. He allocated commanding roles to loyal soldiers such as James Douglas, otherwise known as Black Douglas (possibly for his black hair but most likely for the fact that he’d raided, torched and pillaged his way across the northern frontier).
Together they trained 5,000–6,000 infantry to use spears as offensive weapons in ‘schiltrons’ – hedgehog formations of razor-sharp steel that would push forward into attack against oncoming cavalry. These became the greatest weapon of the Wars of Scottish Independence, a fighting machine that could destroy a cavalry army.
Robert the Bruce: fast to act
The English army paused its advance on 23 June, just a few miles from Stirling Castle, and debated where to camp, while the vanguard rode ahead carefully to assess the terrain. Having spent much of the war so far pursuing evasive Scottish rebels, the English were eager to fight but had no decisive plan on how to do so. A leading nobleman in the vanguard was Henry de Bohun. As the army reached the surrounds of Stirling Castle, he spurred his warhorse to the top of the north bank of a steep burn ahead, hoping to achieve a wide view of the field below. There he spied the shadows of men in the distance, half concealed in the woods.
Addressing them was a man on a small, grey horse, darting across the line, wearing a helmet ensconced with a gold circlet – the symbol of a king. The man was Robert the Bruce, and he was an open target. To kill or capture the Scottish king would end the war, before the battle had begun. Fired up by youthful ignorance, bravery and the pursuit of chivalric glory that ran through the veins of the nobility, Henry de Bohun lowered his lance and charged. Bruce was fast to act. At the moment of contact, he spun his horse to one side, stood high in his stirrups and hurled his great axe down on Henry de Bohun’s head, crushing his helmet and his skull in one brutal blow.
Ignited by this episode, the Scots roared into action and encountered the oncoming English vanguard, who, according to Thomas Gray, “charged into the thick of the action”. The result was a bloodbath, with the English cavalry forced onto the Scottish spears before they could halt their advance. The English front line was bloodied and important prisoners taken, including Thomas Gray. Robert the Bruce now ordered his army to wait, spending the night concealed in thick woodland. The English, in need of a camp, manoeuvred into an appalling position, down a steep ridge next to the river Forth. The land was “evil, deep, wet marsh”, flanked by the river and two streams, the Pelstream Burn and the Bannock Burn behind.
Wavering loyalty among the English
As dawn broke the following morning, Midsummer’s Day, Edward’s army found itself far from ready to do battle. Where Robert the Bruce and his commanders were united, the English king had filled his commanding ranks with men who wavered in loyalty, disaffected by Edward II’s penchant for favourites such as Piers Gaveston. According to the author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, a fairly reliable chronicle of Edward II’s life, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester (the king’s nephew), led the calls for the king to change his battle tactics.
Gloucester pushed Edward for patience, particularly given the bloodbath of the previous day. This proved wise counsel, as the tired, demoralised army was struggling to orient themselves. Edward “scorned the earl’s advice, and grew very heated with him”, even questioning his loyalty. At this Gloucester spat back: “Today… it will be clear that I am neither a traitor nor a liar.”
The first engagement of the battle of Bannockburn, named after the nearby Bannock Burn, was between the archers. Following an exchange of arrows, the cavalry, holding 12ft-long lances, axes (or maces) and swords, lined up to advance, pushed tightly together by the rivers on either side. The Scots were arranged into three schiltrons – “a thick-set hedge”. The cavalry charged first and, on impact, knights were flung from their horses, impaled by Scottish spears. Scottish axes slammed down on armoured knights as they fell to the ground.
The result was a massacre. The Earl of Gloucester, not recognised by his arms for ransom, was butchered on the pikes of the Scots. The English cavalry became a bloodied blockade for the infantry, whose attack only added to the confusion. Archers hurried to the north side of the battle to rain arrows onto the Scottish flank, only to be cut down by Scottish horsemen. The Lanercost chronicler, writing from a priory near Hadrian’s wall, related that Edward II fled from the battlefield with only a handful of knights, “like miserable wretches”, for Dunbar Castle. He added that Edward left “all the others to their fate… a great crowd of knights, 600 other mounted men and 1,000 foot fled in another direction towards Carlisle”.
The Scots were arranged into three schiltrons – “a thick-set hedge”. The cavalry charged first and, on impact, knights were flung from their horses, impaled by Scottish spears. Scottish axes slammed down on armoured knights as they fell to the ground
More knights were captured, mostly at Bothwell Castle, a turreted military stronghold with a 90ft round keep built on a steep bank over the river Clyde. The Lanercost chronicler noted that “certain knights were captured by women”, but does not name them. The Scots took as many high-ranking prisoners as they could find, accruing or killing at least 50 English knights, with many more captured. Peter Chichester, the former household clerk of Edward I; Robert de Grendon, sheriff of Glamorgan in Wales; and John Hazlerigg, a northern knight, were all captured and held in Scotland until their ransoms could be paid by members of their family or by appeal to the king.
Another captive, John Segrave, who had been paid generously to dispatch the body parts of national hero William Wallace around Scotland and England, was personally ransomed by the king. Roger Northburgh, the keeper of the privy seal and the most important administrative person in the realm, was captured along with the Great Seal itself. Robert Baston, a friar who was employed to accompany the troops to Bannockburn to record their victory in ink, was another of those to be taken captive. He was ordered by Robert the Bruce to rewrite the tale of Bannockburn in exchange for his freedom. His surviving account discusses how soldiers were up drinking the night before the battle, suggesting the defeat was due to a collection of raging hangovers.
English reaction to the Bannockburn defeat
Across England, chroniclers were left aghast at the defeat at Bannockburn, and none could explain it. Some called it a moral reckoning, a punishment on Edward II for pillaging Scottish monasteries on his way to Stirling. Others blamed the absence of major English noblemen, such as Thomas of Lancaster, who had refused to participate in the battle due to his disaffection with the king’s regime. The Vita chronicler compared the outcome at Bannockburn to the travesty of the battle of Courtrai in 1302, in which the French had lost their fighting elite to a less experienced army of local Flemish militia.
Few doubted that the loss of noblemen at Bannockburn would have a devastating impact on England’s political landscape and its security. For the Scots there would be no such soul-searching. Bannockburn revolutionised their position in the Anglo-Scottish War and, for a time, bought them independence. At Cambuskenneth Abbey in November 1314, before a packed parliament of Scottish nobles and clergy, Robert the Bruce smoked out his enemies in Scotland.
He produced a statute proclaiming: “All who died outside the faith and peace of the said lord king in the war or otherwise… should be disinherited perpetually of lands and tenements and all other title within the kingdom of Scotland.” This document forced every elite member of the realm to either attest their allegiance to Bruce or be stripped of their land, wealth and titles. Families were split by allegiance. Ingram de Umfraville defected to the Scottish side, whereas his cousin Robert de Umfraville, Earl of Angus remained steadfastly loyal to the flailing Edward II. Philip de Mowbray, the seemingly loyal custodian of Stirling Castle, also defected, choosing to side with Robert the Bruce.
Robert the Bruce gives the Anglo-Scottish nobility an ultimatum: to support his kingship or be disinherited.
Bruce captures the English stronghold of Berwick-on-Tweed.
1318 and 1319
Bruce launches major raids into the north of England as far as Pontefract in Yorkshire.
Following a bitter feud, Edward II has Thomas, Earl of Lancaster beheaded. Lancaster is accused of colluding with Robert the Bruce.
Edward II is deposed. His son is crowned Edward III. He will later institute a new method of managing Anglo-Scottish politics echoing his grandfather Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’.
The English resign all claims to sovereignty of Scotland. They also consent to a marriage agreement between Bruce’s son David and the English princess Joanna. This marks the end of the First War of Scottish Independence.
Bruce dies, leaving Scotland in a minority kingship under his heir, five-year-old David II.
Anglo-Scottish nobles who had lost their lands during Robert the Bruce’s reign march on Scotland. This triggers the Second War of Scottish Independence.
An English army defeats the Scots at Halidon Hill. Edward Balliol takes nominal control of Scotland.
David II is captured after attempting an invasion of England. The Second War of Scottish Independence comes to an end but hostilities break out sporadically into the 15th and 16th centuries.
Display of Gaelic unity
Until Bannockburn, the border between England and Scotland had been porous. Noble families held land on both sides of the border; Scot married Englishwoman, and vice versa. The statute of Cambuskenneth divided the two nations with a greater severity than had been witnessed for decades. Yet that didn’t stop Scottish raiders crossing the border with increasing frequency. With major northern barons – such as Robert Clifford, the warden of the Marches – killed or captured at Bannockburn, the north of England was now left unprotected.
Without this level of defence in place, Robert the Bruce exploited his advantage to the full, leading punitive raids as far south as Pontefract, burning property, stealing cattle and resources and destroying crops – a cruel method of war during a time of famine. But Robert the Bruce’s ambitions didn’t end in northern England. In fact, they extended over the water to Ireland. Irish leaders were reinvigorated by the Scottish victory, inspiring Donal O’Neill, king of Tyrone to offer the high kingship of Ireland to Edward Bruce. This display of Gaelic unity was fired by an ambition to oust English conquerors from Ireland and achieve national independence in the same manner as the Scots had at Bannockburn.
For the English, Bannockburn provided the harshest of lessons in martial failure, poor leadership, and the importance of unity. The battle exposed the weaknesses of Edward II – and those failings pitched a rattled, divided nation into a civil war that, in the second half of the 1320s, would lead to the king’s deposition and murder. When Edward II’s son, Edward III, ascended the throne in 1327, he set about uniting his barons and forming a successful English fighting force. He was, it seems, desperate not to repeat his father’s mistakes.
Bannockburn was one of Scotland’s greatest military victories – and, as a result, has largely been preserved in Scottish historical memory. Yet it had profound consequences for England, Scotland and even Ireland across the first half of the 14th century and beyond. It was a battle that changed the face of three nations.
This article was first published in the September 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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